What is a pediatric pulmonologist?
If your child wheezes, stops breathing temporarily, shows symptoms of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or another breathing condition such as asthma, these skilled pediatric specialists can help.
If your child’s doctor tells you that you should see a pediatric pulmonologist, you may be wondering what that means. Here’s the information you need to understand what this physician does and how they can help your child.
A pediatric pulmonologist is a doctor who has specialty training in pulmonology, an area of medicine that involves the treatment of conditions that affect the lungs. And because babies’, young children’s and teens’ health needs differ from adults’ needs, they’re also trained pediatricians. This means they have the experience and training your child needs to better manage lung and breathing conditions.
Dr. Jonathan Spahr, a pediatric pulmonologist who treats children at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville and Geisinger Gray’s Woods in Port Matilda, tells us more about the conditions pediatric pulmonologists treat and when your child might need to see one.
What does a pediatric pulmonologist do?
“A pediatric pulmonologist diagnoses, treats and can help manage a wide range of conditions that affect the lungs and respiratory tract in infants through young adults,” says Dr. Spahr.
A pediatric pulmonologist can treat chronic cough and breathing issues to more advanced lung disease. Common conditions they treat include:
Apnea and sleep apnea
Apnea occurs when you stop breathing temporarily, especially while sleeping, which is referred to as sleep apnea. “Signs your child has sleep apnea might include snoring, restless sleep, pauses in breathing or mouth breathing,” says Dr. Spahr. “They may also have problems during the day such as trouble paying attention in school, being very tired or being very hyperactive and fidgety.”
“Asthma is a chronic, or long-term condition that causes the lungs’ airways to inflame, swell and produce extra mucus, making it difficult to breathe,” says Dr. Spahr. If your child has asthma, he or she may show symptoms like wheezing, excessive coughing, fast breathing or shortness of breath.
“Bronchitis occurs when the tubes that carry air to your lungs become inflamed,” explains Dr. Spahr. It can be acute (getting better in a few days) or chronic (a long-term condition).
The most common symptom is a wet-sounding cough that produces mucus. “Most children don’t require a doctor’s treatment for acute bronchitis, as it gets better on its own,” notes Dr. Spahr. “However, if the condition is chronic, you should talk to your pediatrician.”
Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD)
Bronchopulmonary dysplasia is a chronic lung condition that affects newborns and infants born prematurely. “BPD is caused by damage to underdeveloped and fragile lungs that need respiratory support,” explains Dr. Spahr. “BPD in most infants improves as they get older, because most of the lung growth takes place after birth.”
Croup is caused by an infection in the upper airway. “Common signs of croup include a loud, barking cough and noisy, high-pitched breathing,” says Dr. Spahr.
Cystic fibrosis is a serious genetic condition that affects the lungs and digestive system. “With cystic fibrosis, the mucus in the lungs is much thicker and stickier than usual,” explains Dr. Spahr. “This mucus is difficult to cough out of the lungs, causing breathing issues and serious infections.” Cystic fibrosis also affects the ability to digest food properly and can have effects on the ability to grow and gain weight.
While there is no cure for cystic fibrosis, the right treatment can help you and your child manage the symptoms.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
RSV is a common virus that infects the respiratory tract. “For most babies and young children, RSV causes nothing more than a cold,” explains Dr. Spahr. “However, it can lead to more serious illnesses like bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small air tubes) or pneumonia.”
RSV causes cold-like symptoms such as a cough and runny nose, and typically runs its course in a week or two. “If your child is showing symptoms like high-pitched whistling or wheezing when he or she breathes, difficulty or pauses in breathing or signs of dehydration, contact your pediatrician,” says Dr. Spahr.
When should your child see a pediatric pulmonologist?
“Having cold-like symptoms or a cough doesn’t necessarily mean your child needs to see a pediatric pulmonologist,” says Dr. Spahr. But if your child has a cough or symptoms that persist for more than three weeks, or are becoming more severe, you should talk to your child’s doctor.
“Your pediatrician or family medicine provider should always be your first stop if you have concerns,” Dr. Spahr adds. “They can assess your child’s symptoms and help you decide if he or she should see a pediatric pulmonologist, or another specialist.”
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